WASHINGTON — House investigators on Monday released the first transcripts from closed-door depositions taken as part of the impeachment inquiry as four White House officials, including John Eisenberg, a lawyer central to the Ukraine controversy, defied subpoenas to testify.
The refusals to cooperate are coming on a day in which Trump tweeted that he sees “no reason” for lawmakers to summon witnesses regarding his July call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, which he again contended was “perfect.”
House Democrats are encountering renewed stonewalling from the White House as they attempt to move deeper into the ranks of officials with knowledge of Trump’s efforts to press Ukraine’s president to investigate former Vice President Joe Biden and his son Hunter Biden at a time when U.S. military aid was being withheld from that country.
House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff, D-Calif., called the four officials who declined to appear on Monday “first-hand witnesses to serious misconduct” and said that their absence was further evidence of Trump trying to obstruct Congress.
“These witnesses are significant, and the White House understands they are significant,” Schiff told reporters. “We may infer by the White House obstruction here that their testimony would be further incriminating to the President.”
In addition to Eisenberg, the three other witnesses summoned are: Robert Blair, a senior adviser to acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney; Brian McCormack, an Office of Management and Budget official; and Michael Ellis, another White House lawyer.
Meanwhile, House investigators released the transcripts of two closed-door depositions taken as part of the impeachment inquiry. Records of the Oct. 11 testimony of Marie Yovanovitch, the former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, and the Oct. 16 testimony of P. Michael McKinley, a former senior adviser to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, were made public shortly before noon Monday.
Yovanovitch testified that she feared her job was in jeopardy because of criticism from conservatives, according to the transcript, and reached out to Gordon Sondland, the U.S. ambassador to the European Union.
“You know, you need to go big or go home,” she said Sondland told her. “You need to, you know, tweet out there that you support the President and that all these are lies and everything else.”
Yovanovitch said she thought that was beneath the job of someone in a diplomatic position but suggested that Pompeo make a statement in her defense. It never came, she testified, because “there was concern that the rug would be pulled out from underneath the State Department if they put out something publicly.”
In his session with impeachment investigators, McKinley defended the work of Yovanovitch, the target of a smear campaign led by Trump’s personal attorney Rudy Giuliani and his associates.
Yovanovitch testified that Giuliani’s Ukrainian contacts sought to ruin her career because she was battling corruption in Ukraine, which undercut them financially.
McKinley described Yovanovitch as “excellent, serious, committed” and “one of those people who seemed to be destined for greater things” — even though Trump called her “bad news” during the July 25 call with Zelensky.
“She’s going to go through some things,” Trump told Zelensky, according to a readout of the call released by the White House.
McKinley testified that he was disturbed when he read those words from Trump and said it was clear that Yovanovitch had been “caught up in something that had nothing to do with the way that she performed her duties in Kyiv.”
He also said such comments — in which a President disparages an ambassador to the leader of the nation where she is serving — “creates difficulties for the Ambassador on the ground.”
“As a Foreign Service Officer, to see the impugning of somebody I know to be a serious, committed colleague in that manner that it was done raised alarm bells for me,” he told investigators.
The transcripts are the first in a series that Democrats say will be released as the inquiry becomes more public. Schiff said that the depositions of Sondland and Kurt Volker, the former special U.S. envoy to Ukraine, will be released Tuesday.
Republicans claimed Monday that transcripts are being released selectively to buoy the Democrats’ case against the President. Rep. Jody Hice, R-Ga., charged that Schiff was being “highly selective” in choosing what to release in the impeachment “hoax,” while Rep. Doug Lamborn, R-Colo., said Democrats were publishing only the records that “benefit their narrative.”
A divided House last week voted to approve guidelines for the public phase of the probe, clearing the way for nationally televised hearings in mid-November and ensuring Trump’s right to participate in the latter stage of the proceedings unless he tries to block witnesses from testifying.
“As we move towards this new public phase of the impeachment inquiry, the American public will begin to see for themselves the evidence that the committees have collected,” the three Democratic House chairmen leading the inquiry said in a joint statement. “With each new interview, we learn more about the President’s attempt to manipulate the levers of power to his personal political benefit.”
Schiff along with Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Eliot Engel, D-N.Y. and acting Oversight and Reform Committee Chairman Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y., said in the statement that the Yovanovitch and McKinley transcripts “demonstrate clearly how President Trump approved the removal of a highly respected and effective diplomat based on public falsehoods and smears against Ambassador Yovanovitch’s character and her work in support of long-held U.S. foreign policy anticorruption goals.”
House Democrats had wanted to question Eisenberg, the deputy counsel on the National Security Council, about what transpired after Trump’s July 25 call with Zelensky, which set off internal debate over Trump’s actions.
Eisenberg proposed moving a transcript of the call to a highly classified server and restricting access to it, according to two people familiar with Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman’s testimony who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe private discussions.
Schiff said that depositions have revealed that there “may have been others” involved in discussions about moving the transcript of Trump’s July call with Zelensky to a highly classified server, but he did not say who those people might be.
An attorney for Eisenberg said in a letter to House committee chairmen that Eisenberg is not appearing Monday because he was not given reasonable time to prepare and because Trump instructed him not to cooperate.
The attorney, William Burck, said a subpoena was emailed to Eisenberg on Friday night.
“This is insufficient and unreasonable notice and imposes an undue burden on Mr. Eisenberg, especially in light of his legal and national security responsibilities in the White House,” Burck wrote. “Even if Mr. Eisenberg had been afforded a reasonable amount of time to prepare, the President has instructed Mr. Eisenberg not to appear at the deposition.”
Burck also referenced a pending court case regarding testimony from another witness who declined to appear, citing conflicting guidance from Congress and the White House.
“Mr. Eisenberg, as a lawyer and officer of the court, will abide by whatever final decision the federal judiciary reaches on the dispute between the Executive and Congress,” Burck wrote.
On Monday afternoon, Trump attended an event at the White House honoring the Washington Nationals for their World Series win. The President joked that the country only wanted to focus on two things — the Nats and impeachment — in the weeks leading up to the team’s victory.
“Throughout this season, the Nationals captured the hearts of baseball fans across the region and across the country. America fell in love with the Nats baseball. They just fell in love with Nats baseball. That’s all they wanted to talk about — that and impeachment.”
“I like Nats baseball much more,” Trump said with a smile.
He planned to attend a campaign rally in Kentucky later Monday.